"Hillside Number 1" , WILLIAMS, Fred
etching, aquatint, drypoint and mezzotint on paper
There was a favourite story told by painters in Victoria that if you drove to Geelong from Melbourne you could see a little white dot on the You Yangs mountains which would be Fred Williams crouched at his easel painting the shrubby landscape and flat plains below.
Williams attained unique distinction in Australian art. But only by taking the hard road and doing dedicated work did he gradually achieve success.
The Gallery acquired its first Williams picture in 1964 - an engraving and aquatint of Sherbrook Forest (1961). This was an early such acquisition for a regional gallery, considering the avant garde nature of the artist's work.
The NRAG, as with many regional galleries that acquired Williams' works in the late 1960s and early 1970s, shocked local audiences. Some people were dismayed at the Gallery's paying $400 for such a challenging abstracted picture as "Landscape in Upwey", purchased in 1966. (Today the picture is worth tens of thousands of dollars.)
In the 1970s James Mollison, then Director of the National Gallery of Australia, loudly proclaimed Williams to be one of Australia's greatest living landscape painters. This became a useful quote for gallery curators and education officers when facing antagonistic audiences.
After Williams' return to Australia in 1957 the Australian landscape became the principal subject in his art. The artist saw himself alongside Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Fred McCubbin as an interpreter of the Australian landscape in the heroic tradition. Patrick McCaughey, one of Williams' biographers, wrote that the challenge for Williams "was to find the form in a seemingly featureless landscape and to transform familiar landscape motifs into a new pictorial experience." 
Williams once said: "But it is perfectly true, in Australia there is no focal point, and obviously it was too good a thing for me to pass up the fact that if there was to be no focal point in the landscape, it had to be built into the [focal] point."
In contrast to his predecessors Streeton and Roberts, Williams often ignored the conventional contours of the landscape and concentrated on the trees, rocks and shrubs. Williams saw the
vegetation as strange - similar to himself as a foreigner in an inhospitable land. He said, "There's something irrational about Australian gum trees ... they seem to be on top of the ground." 
This statement makes sense of his inimitable mark-making and hieroglyphic dots of paint on broad backgrounds. The pictorial structure of Williams' landscape painting was often based on such dots or marks, isolated and seemingly randomly placed, yet deliberate and beautiful. It is intriguing to compare Williams' dot paintings with those of the Aboriginal artist Emily Kngwarreye, whose art Williams would not have seen. A sense of place pervades both artists' work - the dots convey an image of a timeless land.
A sense of scale always pervades Williams' work. As he reduced the size of his daubs and marks he retained a strong illusion of space.
The NRAG's collection of four Williams oil paintings and gouaches shows how, over nine years, the artist gradually abstracted the landscape, from the strongly composed The steep road of 1957, to the minimal, dotted You Yangs landscape of 1966.
Williams was extremely industrious and worked on site in the bush at least one day a week over a 30-year period. However, he said: "I can only take it for four or five hours at a time and sometimes I find it hostile." Later he said: "I couldn't say I loved the bush ... I simply want to paint pictures from it."  Nevertheless, Williams kept refining and returning to it for most of his life.
The Upwey landscapes
After the artist's return from Mittagong he began painting around Victoria's Dandenong Ranges (Olinda, Sherbrook and Upwey). The NRAG's two Upwey landscapes were painted after Williams and his wife Lyn moved to Upwey in 1963. This was the year that Williams won the Helena Rubenstein Travelling Art Scholarship, which was to be a turning point in his career. According to fellow artist Jan Senbergs, the Rubenstein award brought wide acclaim to Williams, especially from many influential curators and critics including Daniel Thomas, Laurie Thomas and James Mollison. This was the point at which the Sydney art dealer Rudy Komon took on Williams as one of the key artists in his stable. The patronage from Komon enabled Williams to paint full-time and relinquish his part-time work with a Melbourne picture-framer.
"Upwey landscape" (1964) was a gouache study for an oil painting which won Williams the Wynne Prize in 1966. In the gouache Williams has dispensed with all major landscape features other than the horizon line. Trees and shrubs are indistinguishable from one another and not yet portrayed as dots and hieroglyphic markings as in the oil landscape of Upwey (1965/66) which the NRAG purchased in 1966.
Rudy Komon, Williams' dealer, was to donate NRAG's first major Williams oil painting in 1969. "You Yangs landscape" has the definitive Williams trademark of dots and sparsely-placed marks on a featureless background built up with veils of translucent washes.
Mittagong's steep roads
The steep road relates to Fred Williams' Mittagong series of paintings and prints. He visited Mittagong with Melbourne artist John Brack in the summer of 1957/58 and continued subjects and themes that he had commenced in Mittagong in January 1957 soon after his return to Australia from Europe.
The titular road in "The steep road" goes straight up the centre of the picture to a high horizon line. The bush takes on a somewhat menacing mood. Landscape features are more explicitly delineated than in later works. "The steep road" in the NRAG collection is very similar to a Williams oil painting, in the National Gallery of Australia's collection, of which James Mollison wrote: "Landscape with a steep road (1957) takes its subject from an earlier gouache showing a frieze of trees interrupted by the familiar sight of a road rising steeply through the bush over the top of the hill. In the oil painting, however, Williams abandoned the principles of conventional pictorial recession. Turning the road into a strong formal device, he tilted it vertically between the tree trunks and the subtly different tones and colours that mark the top foliage of stands of eucalypts." 
High vantage point in the You Yangs
"You Yangs landscape" (1966) is the most abstracted landscape of the NRAG's Williams paintings. The You Yangs presented Williams with challenges. When painting and sketching in the hills he was looking out across a flat, featureless landscape. With his high vantage point, without any distinctive pictorial forms, Williams then relinquished even the horizon line. He said: "Look there. See how the view goes right up to the sky? That's an incentive for doing away with the skyline, and see the roads? That's where those vertical lines come from. The trees are always seen to grow on one side." 
The absence of horizon and sky in "You Yangs landscape" gives a sense of height from which we look down over the land. There is neither foreground nor background in this picture. "You Yangs landscape" was painted in Williams' Upwey studio and was based on preliminary works he made in the You Yangs from 1962. According to James Mollison, "the painting was made from an off-cut of canvas from the large paintings Williams worked on after his return from Europe in December 1966 ... The first painted version of this subject is the "You Yangs landscape No 1"... [which] took second prize at Georges in 1962 and was later one of the panel of paintings with which Williams won the Rubenstein Travelling Art Scholarship in 1963." 
1 Patrick McCaughey Fred Williams 1927-1982 Murdoch Books, Sydney 1996
2 Patrick McCaughey (as above)
3 James Mollison Fred Williams Australian National Gallery, Canberra 1987
4 James Mollison (as above)
5 Patrick McCaughey (as above)
6 James Mollison Fred Williams (as above)
editioned below image lower left in pencil ""2-18"
signed below image lower right in pencil "Fred Williams"